Welcome to Import Horizons at GameCritics.com. Savvy gamers are aware of the gaming scene in Japan, but language, access and playability have been the bane of those looking for diverse titles from the East. Some games are so culturally idiosyncratic that players often give up in frustration. This semi-regular feature will bridge that gap with advice for those looking to import, and those curious to the world of gaming in Japan.

Summertime is here. That time of the year when everyone pulls out the shorts and sandals, gathers the family, heads to the beach, or makes plans to visit that extended family. No matter where you reside in the civilized world "Summer Time" is the universal landmark on the social calendar.

Boku No Natsuyasumi 2 (My Summer Vacation 2)

What better way to get some sand between your toes than with the game Boku No Natsuyasumi 2 (My Summer Vacation 2). This month Sony will add this title to "The Best Series", in Japan. Think of it as PlayStation's "Greatest Hits Collection". This installment of Import Horizons will celebrate the platinum benchmark of this award winning vacation simulation. Sure, most of you have never heard of this title that captured the heart of Japan, but hey, that's why I'm here, right? Have a beach towel and some sun tan lotion, because we're about to get comfy.

First off: a simple translation. Boku = "I" (male form), no = (possessive), Natsuyasumi = "Summer vacation". In short order: "My Summer Vacation". All of you Halo and Grand Theft Auto players can get back on the yellow bus, nothing to kill here, no weapons or dark secret military objectives. Nope, this massive seller simply asks what many psychoanalysts have overcharged patients for years: finding your inner child. Sorry, don't mean to get all Joseph Campbell on your buttocks, but the My Summer Vacation series prides itself on recreating that blissful, magical, innocence of childhood.

Remember that? When life was new and exhilarating, 16 bit graphics were "kewl", the world was an unexplored mystery, and gamers were not jaded sourpusses bashing on Microsoft.

As 9 year-old "Boku" (a pun of sorts) and in the tradition of Japanese summers you are sent off to visit relatives (The Arase family) for your "vacation". Schools in Japan work on what we in the West label, "Year-Round" schedules. Students across the country get a month reprieve from the suicide inducing torture known as final exams. Taking leave for a countryside trip to visit the extended family is a common occurrence in Japan. Coincidentally, the first Summer Vacation featured that exact "old country" aspect. This sequel (Umi No Bouken Hen) switches gears slightly to an old seaside resort, consisting of a few local houses and services in the tradition of an older, quieter Japan. Tourism is lower than red-eye flights to Iraq, which leaves the gamer with plenty of time to do what every 9 year-old boy does; explore every nook and cranny and poke dead animals with a stick. Ah see, now it's all coming back, isn't it?

This invokes memories of summer vacation camping trips when I was a kid. The inner-city world as I knew it fell away. The urban life of telephone wires and car stereos were replaced with the natural bizarre sounds and landscapes of another planet. You sit around with other kids and dish out ghosts stories and urban legends. You swim in the open river and do funny kid stuff, like toss rocks at skunks (okay, stupid, ignorant stuff, but you get the point). Granted, today's kids are not all hampered by remote locales. Cell phones, Laptops, Game Boys and Boku No Natsuyasumi 2 (My Summer Vacation 2) portable Walk Man electronics are common pocket items that placate most bored kids. However, My Summer Vacation 2is pitched as a period piece, circa 1975. Thus, all the trappings of modern day technology are neatly tossed aside in one fell swoop. This enforces the social community bond that Japan so heavily loves to remind its people. Further that with some coming-of-age situations encountered through the denizens of the sleepy village and you get a rather unique gaming experience.

The title is very ambitious. The overall game play is a third-person adventure, much like Shenmue and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind where the direction and pace of the adventure is up to you. The interface is transparent. No on-screen displays, no gauges, or meters. The game stresses exploration, thus it provides every item with some function. Merely walk up to something and hit "action". This becomes your main goal; simply discover everything new under the sun and have as many eventful days in one virtual month as humanly possible. Each "day" consists of morning community exercises, eating breakfast with the relatives, free exploration, eating dinner with the relatives, more free exploration, and then bedtime. The only detour, if you stay up too late, will be missing the morning exercises with the villagers. Each night at bedtime, hand drawn art by Boku, represents the best event of the day. It is recorded in his diary which becomes that infamous, "what I did for summer" school report. Remember that horrid assignment the English teacher dumped on everyone for the first day of school? Are you with me so far? Still sound exciting and fresh? Yeah, I thought so. Let me repeat; gamers looking for tension need to apply elsewhere. Trust me, navigating the night scenes (where your only companion is the chirping of crickets) demands patience not commonly found in the energetic fragfest games of today. But I have faith in you, and actually, there is more to do than meets the eye.

Item collection plays a major role in the My Summer Vacation series. You will be tasked with catching tons of fish, insects to collect, rare bottle caps to find, gold to discover, insect sumo wrestling, swimming, biking, hiking, cats and dogs to discover, and even a small rocket to help build. Not to mention the various relationships with the villagers and tourists. Yes, I agree it sounds like Animal Crossing, but when done right this is a good thing people. Plus, you don't have that pesky dialog to drag you down. In fact, the voice talent is top notch and the evolving script spot on. Likewise, the graphic presentation takes special note in this game. Fans of Hayo Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service….) will feel right at home. Hand-painted environments are faithfully reproduced with the same attention to detail as any Miyazaki film. Even the music is so heavily inspired from Miyazaki's trademark features that comparisons cannot be avoided. Millennium Kitchen did a great job patching pre-rendered and 3D elements together to craft backgrounds eager for exploration in this third person adventure—which gives you the sensation of playing an animated movie.

But this all means nothing if the gamer doesn't feel compelled to participate. Fortunately, the story wraps everything up in a nice little beach ball. The village is full of old secrets and stories, but thanks to your dutiful exploration you'll unearth a few answers, help a bevy of villagers solve some mysteries, and face some great coming-of-age issues. Even more poignant are some key events in the game that are narrated by the adult "Boku". You get a solid emphasis of how these summer vacations shaped his adult life. These fully fleshed concepts bring the game to a larger experience, making it worth the price of admission on that alone.

Boku No Natsuyasumi 2 (My Summer Vacation 2)

Summertime couldn't be more enjoyable, but will all gaijins be able to tackle the surf? Although complete with language options there is no English version/track/subtitles. Beginning Japanese language skills will be required, although mostly verbal (unless you prefer the subtitles "on"). When reading text I was glad to have mostly Hiragana and Katakana characters. Nonetheless, I personally had a tough time (making the game last three times longer than it should). However, when the game is based on heavy exploration it's hard not to miss a beat and fill in the gaps. After all, many aspects of discovery are universal in any language. Tossing rocks at skunks, for example. Thus, I recommend importing My Summer Vacation 2. As an experiment, for some gamers, since it will be lower in cost as a "Best Series", but also since language skill can be fudged, if you don't mind getting by on discovery alone. However, a better working understanding of the language to gain the full experience is a must. But even without that knowledge the game can still be completed (my daughter served as an unsuspecting guinea pig for that matter). It's a win-win for everyone. Even the skunk is happy.

Jim-san no tagami (Jim's Letters)

We want to try something new at Import Horizons, and you can help make it happen. If you have questions about import games, or want information about upcoming titles in Japan, then let GameCritics.com help you. Send us your inquiries and you might find your letter in the next installment of the Import Horizons. Sorry we're not a translation service, so please don't send URLs and graphic files. However, if you have a specific import title you would like addressed, or a suggestion for future installments feel free to contact Import Horizons and keep your eyes peeled on this spot.

Jim-san's Import Notes:

It's summer in Japan, kids are out of school and gamers in the East have plenty to do. Tokyo is unbearable hot during these months so plenty of indoor action under the flow of air conditioners will be preferred. In 2000 overall retail in Japan hit a slump in sales, but 2003 is showing promise, especially in the console and software market. Reports from Dengeki, an entertainment news source from Japan, shows the top 20 titles of July below:

  1. Super Mario Advance 4
  2. Kirby Air Ride
  3. Mother 1 + 2
  4. Silent Hill 3
  5. Animal Forest e+
  6. Initial D Special Stage
  7. Slotter Up Core: Giant's Star
  8. Hanjuku Eiyuu Vs 3D
  9. Let's Make The J. League Pro Soccer Club 3
  10. Viewtiful Joe
  11. Sangokushi Senki 2
  12. Pokémon Sapphire
  13. Ka 2: Let's Go Hawaii (Mr. Mosquito 2)
  14. Tottoko Hamtaro 4
  15. Pokémon Ruby
  16. Made In Wario
  17. Gambler Densetsu Tetsuya 2
  18. Taikou No Tetsujin
  19. Naruto
  20. Boku No Natsuyasumi 2 (My Summer 2 – PlayStation 2's The Best series)

But Japanese gamers won't have to stay holed up in small apartments with their remote controlled toilets and Keita cell phones. Upcoming key events including the famous Tokyo Game Show in September, held at the Makuhari Messe center and other special video game promotions are held all over Japan. Join Sony's Hungry Ghosts festival game promotion, or the grand opening of Bandia's museum featuring a full scale Gundam mech, and displays of Ultra-man, Kamen Masked Rider and the king himself, Godzilla. So whether you're visiting Japan, or staying for the long haul gamers of all stripes can find something cool under the rising sun.

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